Federal Interagency Council On Homelessness Asks What We Think

March 20, 2010

Last year’s HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act reauthorized the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and revised its mission, membership and duties.

The Council now brings together 13 Cabinet-level departments, plus five sub-cabinet and independent agencies and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The HEARTH Act charged the Council to develop a federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. The plan is supposed to be submitted to Congress on May 20 and updated annually.

The Council says the plan will represent agreement among the agencies on a set of priorities and strategies they will jointly pursue over the next five years.

The plan will guide both the development of programs and agency budget proposals. So it clearly has the potential to significantly improve and better coordinate the federal government’s diverse homelessness prevention and homeless assistance programs.

The Council is proceeding from what it calls “the moral foundation” that “no one should experience homelessness–no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.” It’s broken this aspirational goal down into four key objectives:

  • Finish the job of ending chronic homelessness
  • Prevent and end homelessness among veterans
  • Prevent and end family homelessness
  • Set a path toward ending all types of homelessness

Since it developed these, it’s apparently decided to also focus on preventing and ending youth homelessness and to explore the role of local communities, including the alignment of federal policies and funding to their homelessness prevention, emergency shelter and re-housing programs.

The Council has aimed for a transparent process, with “multiple opportunities for input, feedback and collaboration.” It seems to be doing a creditable job.

It has gathered input through six regional stakeholder meetings and several meetings during the recent conference of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Now it invites us to share our ideas and vote for ideas others have submitted.

The latter range from the very specific, i.e., provide shelters with funding for case managers, to over-arching solutions, i.e. build more affordable housing. We’ve thus got many choices and a broad field for further suggestions.

So if you want to weigh in on the federal homelessness “roadmap,” here’s your chance. But don’t dally. The deadline for public input is March 22.

Should We Have a Right To Housing?

January 30, 2010

Blogger Shannon Moriarty has come up with five reasons to feel hopeful about homelessness in 2010. Number two on her list is that homelessness will be discussed as a human rights issue.

She’s looking forward to the UN Special Rappoteur’s final report on her investigation into the housing situation here in the U.S. She expects the findings to be critical, as indeed the preliminary findings were.

But that’s not what’s got her so hopeful. It’s rather that the very fact of the report will provide an opportunity to re-frame homelessness as a human rights violation.

Echoing an earlier posting, she asserts that framing homelessness as a human right will place “a moral obligation on lawmakers and members of the community to see that all individuals are given access to something [in this case, housing] as a basic necessity.” Moreover, she says, it will “remove housing from the pool of issues fighting for priority.”

Dream on.

As Shannon notes, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which the U.S. voted for in 1948, includes a sweeping right to “a standard of living adequate for … health and well-being,” including food, clothing housing, medical care, necessary social services and security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond an individual’s control.”

Have our lawmakers felt morally obliged to provide any of this to “everyone … and his family?” What about “the right of every family to a decent home” that FDR said we’d accepted, “so to speak,” as part of a second Bill of Rights?

Surely there’s a place for appeals to morality–or moral values like compassion. But to believe that arguing from a human rights foundation will elevate housing above other issues seems to me naive. Nor am I at all sure we should want it out of the pool of related issues.

Why, after all, are people homeless? For the most part, because they can’t afford housing. Major reasons include lack of good health insurance, unemployment or under-employment, low wages and gaping holes in our safety net. Add to these community development policies that deplete the stock of low-cost housing.

So it seems to me to make more sense to integrate housing into a broad anti-poverty strategy like what Half in Ten proposes. A strategy of this sort can bring together advocates and service providers who come at the issues from various angles.

And it’s likely to win more friends in high places than a rhetoric based on rights, which after all are either empty words or enforceable by litigation. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which also champions a human rights approach, seems to envision the latter.

Can you imagine any legislative body agreeing to a right that might allow anyone who didn’t have a decent home to sue the government?

Shannon acknowledges that it may be impractical for homelessness advocates to adopt a human rights paradigm. If by impractical she means forfeiting results, then I think she’s right on target. And why advocate if not to get results?

National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day in Washington, DC

December 18, 2009

It’s almost December 21. The first day of winter. The longest night of the year. And for 19 years, National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.

As in the past, local and state-level organizations across the country will sponsor events to commemorate members of their communities who died during the year because of our collective failure to end homeless.

Here in the District, the two nationwide sponsors–the National Coalition on Homelessness and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council–have joined with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and other partners to organize a candlelight vigil.

This is more than your usual memorial event. Three and a half months into the fiscal year, the D.C. government still hasn’t found the funds–or the political will–to ensure funding for homeless services after March 31.

Nor has it come to grips with the rising tide of family homelessness. As of December 6, there were 275 homeless families on the waiting list for shelter. There would have been more than 400 had an unusually large number not found friends or relatives to double up with for awhile. Still homeless, but off the list of families awaiting help.

Looking beyond the District, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that communities need more federal funding for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program that was created by the economic recovery act. This because the projected need was based on an expectation that the unemployment rate would peak, long about now, at 9.2%.

Yet the DC Council is poised to give away an estimated $700,000 a year in property tax revenues to a large corporation that plans to move downtown. Congress has punted jobs legislation–a potential vehicle for the HPRP funding and surely a way to prevent homelessness–into the new year.

The vigil is a way to demonstrate our concern–and our support for more enlightened priorities. You can join just by showing up at 6:00 p.m. near the bell outside the front of Union Station.

Thoughts On Home and Homelessness

November 24, 2009

Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a long time know that my husband and I became homeless, in a manner of speaking, in mid-February. I say “in a manner of speaking” because we weren’t evicted but displaced by a fire. So, thanks to insurance, we’ve had a place to stay.

After countless complications, permits and inspections, we’re finally going home. Which has got me thinking again about what it means to not have a home–no place to live that you feel is your own, a center you can come back to for as long as you want.

The definition here captures what I’ve learned first-hand. Being homeless means having no rock-bottom sense of safety and stability. And this is a basic human need.

A new brief by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reminds us of the many lasting effects homelessness has on children. It leads off with the profound destabilizing experience of becoming homeless–the impact of “loss of community, routines, possessions, privacy, and security.”

The report goes on to detail the additional trauma children and their parents can suffer due to shelter living, the stresses of needing to reestablish a home and problems that could have precipitated their homelessness, e.g., acute poverty, parental illness.

Many studies indicate that these have serious, lifelong impacts on children. But another recent report suggests that residential instability itself plays a role, whether children spend time in a shelter or just moving from one temporary housing situation to another. The effects are greatest on very young children.

I wonder whether this doesn’t have something to do with the fact that frequent moves are more destabilizing for them. A young child, after all, doesn’t really understand what’s happening or have an adult grasp of the temporary or the future. It’s just one sudden loss after another. Consider too that the losses can include caregivers and parental attention–even loss of parents themselves.

All of which makes me doubly aware of how fortunate I’ve been–and how skewed our national priorities are when we’ve got a $3 trillion budget and well over 500,000 homeless families.